As a child Jwen loved the circus. Then she grew up.
Nestled on her family’s estate—isolated from the world outside of balls, the visitors doing business with her family, the nannies and tutors—Jwen knew nothing beyond her own privilege. Then she turned fifteen. To celebrate the occasion her father and mother had hired a traveling menagerie with all manner of animals and performers. Elephants from the exotic west. Red pandas from the deepest forests, far away from civilization. Jugglers tossing fire. A man eating fire. A woman who could grow a beard right in front of Jwen, right down to her pointed shoes. Magic.
Always curious about how the cooks prepared the family’s meals, what went in to caring for the family horses—including mucking stables and grooming the horses—Jwen wanted a peek at the goings on behind the menagerie. Although she found excitement in the bright costumes and fanfare, she wanted to see the performers without makeup. The magic behind the transformation from mandarin to extraordinary. Then she witnessed the beating of one of the red pandas who refused to go back into a cage too small for a large dog. She could still hear the whip ripping the air. She remembered the fur stripped away, the poor thing’s flesh lashed.
Jwen ran. Tears in her eyes.
Years later when she left her family’s estate she ran again, against her father’s and mother’s wishes.
Ran toward the magic tainted ugly by her fifteen-year-old’s curiosity.
Ran toward the nearest menagerie she could find. And to the like minds who she need not drag along.
Riflynn shook Jwen from her reverie. The sharpshooter had a long lens focused on the encampment below, at ten wagons parked in a defensive circle wherein unpainted and plain-clothed performers walked about. Many were sitting enjoying lunch. Others were checking on the troupe’s animal acts caged in a smaller circle of wagons. Riflynn watched the people. Her lips moving as she counted roving guards, knives and swords carried, the pistols and rifles at the ready. Her own rifle hung over a shoulder in easy reach.
They two along with Maxa sat high up in some trees just off the road, above the encampment of the Spectacular Magics of the Handwaver Crew.
Earlier in the day three ladies had been headed to Corkbend, a middling city not forty miles south, when Riflynn’s keen eyes spotted the traveling performers some distance ahead. The ladies three snuck up to the braking show, climbed a couple trees, and began to scout the operations. When they spotted the animals, they knew they would not move on.
“Whatya see, Rif?” Jwen asked.
Riflynn shrugged with little concern. “Couple strays the troupe probably picked up along the way. They’ve neglected to sharpen their blades for… oh, I don’t know… a week. Their armour is shit. Mismatched crap they took off the dead somewhere.”
Jwen twirled her fingers, her eyes looking up through the boughs of the trees. “So, you’re telling me we can take em?”
An eyebrow raised, Riflynn huffed and put away her long lens. “Shouldn’t need to ask.”
“What about the troupers themselves?” Maxa asked. Her eyes glowed a deep blue against her dark skin, magic enhancing her vision. She preferred to make her own assessment but valued her companion’s opinion just as much.
Riflynn waved off the concern. “I’m not worried. You?”
“Second rate magi,” Maxa said. “Tricks for children. Troupers won’t bother us.”
“I always enjoyed the jugglers and fire breathers,” Jwen said, crossing her arms, slouching, and feigning a childish pout.
As serious as always, never had Jwen known the woman to smile, Maxa retorted with, “My point made.”
Jwen stuck her tongue out at her friend. Then she herself got serious too. “Then we go in.
“How many and what do they have caged?”
Riflynn frowned, unslung her rifle and settled herself into the crux of two stout branches, her back against the tree’s body. She pulled her hood back, raising the shade she normally covered her face with. “Does it matter how many or what those slavers are oppressing?”
Without hesitation, Jwen said, “No. Doesn’t matter.” Then her mood brightened and she felt like the same little girl who had waited for the menagerie to set up their tents in her family’s back courtyard. “But I do like pandas.”
Riflynn quirked a tiny grin and shook her head. “You’re in luck. There’s a big red one.”
Both Jwen and Maxa slipped down their respective trees slowly, careful not to make a sound.
Hand on the hilt of her rapier, Jwen led the way around the wagons, careful to check for prying eyes glancing at the gaps between two wagons before she and Maxa dashed forward. Spying around one wagon, scouting their next jump, Jwen saw the two guards Riflynn spoke of. Both men wore ragged armor of different styles and faded colors. One bore a tabard with a house sigil faded, the overall color likely once a bright crimson like Jwen’s hair but now a dull pink.
Jwen motioned for Maxa to follow, their way clear. She took a step but didn’t sense her friend’s presence following. In a panic Jwen spun around. Her sudden movement rustled some leaves underneath her boots while her light leather clothing sounded noisily. Her body went tight, scrunching up with feared anticipation of a possible alarm. But no alarm went up.
“You’re sneaking sucks, Jwen,” Maxa commented in a low voice.
Maxa had her staff raised. The ring at its end glowed with a faint nimbus of power. On the wagon’s façade was the troupe’s sigil and name. Maxa turned the paint to liquid and allowed it to drip off the panel that could fold down into an impromptu stage. In the sigil’s place, she used magic to burn into the wood the silhouette of a panda with fangs and a stuck-out tongue. Jwen smelled char, like the stink from a fireplace with the final embers dying. Underneath the panda wagging its tongue in disrespect, Maxa’s magic scrolled the words Liberation.
Maxa turned her dark face to Jwen and shrugged. “What? Couldn’t wait till later.”
True enough. Jwen sighed and couldn’t help but admire the magi’s handwork.
“Let’s go before someone smells the burning,” Jwen urged.
Outside the ring of performer wagons sat a smaller circle of animal cages. Thankfully the panels covering the bars were hitched up, allowing the animals to breath and not bake in hot boxes. Jwen recalled one troupe that often parked its mobile cages and forgot about the animals in favour of sating their own stomach rumblings. Well, that troupe had no animals anymore. These animals here had hunks of food to chew and bowls of water to keep them hydrated. By the by, Jwen had seen worse treatment.
Animals shouldn’t live in cages, she reminded herself with the conviction of riotousness.
She and Maxa moved to unlock and open all the cage doors. Maxa using a spell to circumvent the lock while Jwen used a set of picks she kept tucked into her thigh-high boots, the tops turned down.
Jwen was opening the door for a pair of monkeys when a young trouper entered the circle of mobile cages carrying a bucket of feed. The monkeys bounded over Jwen’s shoulders and head, messing her red locks while on their away into the thick forest of oaks. Jwen stood stock still same as one of those oaks, raised her hands, and began to speak calming lies to the young trouper.
But the girl turned, dropped her pail, and ran.
Maxa sighed. She pointed her staff at the fleeing trouper girl, spoke a word of prayer, gathered energy into the empty center of the staff’s ring, and hurled a concussive blast at the girl’s back. She went down face first into the dirt, but not before letting go a shriek of alarm.
The trouper camp stirred with confused activity, searching for the disturbance.
“Trust Rif, Jwen,” Max sold her sternly, already turning back to the next locked cage holding bear with a deep black coat. “Finish the mission. Rif’ll have our backs.”
Jwen nodded to Maxa’s back and moved to another lock, picks held in her teeth.
Not far off she began to hear the tell-tale popping of rifle rounds. Iron rounds blasted wood. Scattered splinters. Other rounds found metal buckets and pans out for the lunch stop. High pitched pings rang out. The concerned cries that had been growing closer heartbeats ago soon advanced no further. Riflynn was keeping them pinned down in their circle of wagons, shooting the perimeter of the temporary camp to corral any threats to Jwen and Maxa.
Jwen barely had the lock off one wagon when she heard Maxa sigh heavily. Trouble again?
“This is taking too long!” Maxa declared in a hands-flung-in-the-air type of way.
Picks stuck in her chattering teeth, Jwen mumbled in return, “Got more than a few left. Get back to work.”
“Jwen! Stand back!” Maxa shouted.
Just then shouts broke through the cries of alarm and hopelessness, warnings that bandits were in the camp trying to steal the troupe’s animals.
The troupe’s two guards burst into the ring of cages, rusty steel drawn.
Troupers armed with knives bettered suited for dinner prep followed. A couple flung around clubs.
When did everything go tits up? Jwen wondered to herself.
Jwen tucked her picks back inside her boat and drew her rapier with a long, satisfying snicker of steel.
“There! Right there!”
“There they are!”
Jwen readied her blade, shifting her stance sideways, the point of her blade toward the oncoming attackers.
That’s when she saw Maxa raise her staff high over the micro braids tied in a knock at the top of her head.
She was chanting a desperate plea to whatever god she worshiped, the source of her miracles.
Air tugged at Jwen, her whole body feeling drown to the center of the cages where Maxa stood like a priest at the pulpit. Leaves rustled. Tree limbs bowed. Troupers backed away, feeling the energy crackling around them.
Maxa jammed her staff in the ground between her feet. The ground shook. A pulse of energy flowed out from her position, knocking the cages, cracking wood, bending bars. Jwen couldn’t keep her feet, she fell back. In a brief flash she saw that the troupers and their traveling guards also lost their footing.
The world rang in Jwen’s ears and a dull black veil had settled over her vision but was clearing with the blinking of stars. Then she felt a wet slap. A warm, slimy trailing that whipped not uncomfortably across her cheek, much like a dog’s licking.
Someone shouted Jwen’s name from far away, over the ringing.
After a couple seconds the ringing in her ears faded. The shouting grew louder. Closer. It was Maxa’s voice.
When Jwen blinked her eyes she heard Maxa, now with the face of a panda. A red face with a white mask like a strip of leather, a white mouth, and a white patch of fur above the mask shaped like a heart. When had the magi learned to change her appearance?
Hands shook Jwen’s shoulders from behind, urging her to–
“Jwen! Get up! We need to go!” Again it was Maxa. She was shouting at Jwen from behind while the panda looked down at her and tilted its head quizzically. “C’mon! I’m sooo sorry, Jwen. This is all my fault.”
Jwen shook herself and struggled to sit upright. She managed to pull herself up by hugging the panda’s red neck and allowing the animal–bigger than two horses and stronger than five–do the heavy lifting.
Maxa continued to yammer on. “I-I panicked. Sorry. So sorry.”
Extending a hand out, resting that hand on Maxa’s upper arm, Jwen squeezed. The world stopped spinning as she smiled and said easily, “Not a problem. Now shut up, please.”
“So much for a quiet breakout,” Riflynn said as she appeared out of nowhere. She had her rifle up, looking for something or someone to shoot. “Shall we get out of here, ladies?”
The troupers who’d come to defend their imprisoned animals stirred groggily.
“I know we have a no killing policy, Jwen,” Riflynn said with some annoyance, “but we might need to shoot our way out of this mess.”
The panda licked Jwen’s face from chin to forehead and nuzzled her shoulder, offering encouragement. Offering companionship and dare she say… loyalty? You freed me, the animal seemed to say, I’m yours.
The panda bowed, holding out a paw as if curtsying. Jwen accepted the animal’s suggestion and lept onto the its back. She found the fur course and wiry as she held on to the mantle around the panda’s neck and gestured for her partners in crime to join her.
“Let’s go ladies!”
Both Maxa and Riflynn exchanged a look before looking up at Jwen with disbelief. Their third member towered over them now mounted on the panda. Jwen reached down and beckoned them to come aboard the animal’s back with haste.
They climbed up with grumbling complaint.
With a whisper and some coaxing, turning the animal’s head around, away from the encircling wagons and deep into the forest, the panda carried the ladies away. In their wake the troupers wailed with dismay.
“What are we going to do with a panda?” Maxa asked Jwen.
Jwen let out a woop of laughter and patted the animal’s front shoulder. “I’m gonna keep him.”
“She’s a her,” Riflynn said with assurance.
“How do you know, Rif?” Maxa asked.
Riflynn, “I just know.”
“Why do I bother,” Maxa said with a heavy sigh.
Jwen smiled to herself, leaned deep into the animal’s red fur, and gripped the panda tightly around the neck, wind blowing her red hair back like flames. “All the better. This here’s a team of ladies.”